Monday, September 04, 2006

Taking Genocide Personally

I visited Poland shortly after turning 21. It was March 1990 and I was fortunate to be studying in England my junior year of college. After a rigorous semester of study I jumped at the chance to see Eastern Europe during my next semester break. The memories remain fresh sixteen years later. The tour group put Auschwitz and Birkenau on our itinerary.

For me Birkenau had the greater impact. It was usually hot as we walked the grounds. Days earlier when we first arrived in Poland it was bitter cold. There were crematoriums only partially destroyed by the Nazis in their attempt to conceal evidence prior to the war's conclusion. A lake where the ashes of cremated Jews was dumped remained.

I was the only Jew among our small group and sensed I was impacted differently than the others. Physically I was nauseous and struggled to walk. The others were horrified as decent human beings but it wasn’t quite the same for them – at least that’s how it seemed to me. I strolled by myself to an area overlooking a crematorium pit and reflected.

Among the people in our group was a kind-hearted graduate student from Cambodia and survivor of the Khmer Rhouge. He approached and stood next to me. We talked and I explained my family’s Polish history. A grandfather who escaped the Nazis and came to America at the age of 16 with his brothers while their parents remained behind. My great grandfather was especially heroic in helping Jewish children escape death in Poland before the Nazis finally caught up to him. Prior to Hitler he had been a prestigious judge but after September 1939 he was just another Jew marked for death.

Empathetically he observed, “For you this is personal.” We chatted and I learned about his personal history. He was a few years older than me and had a British accent. The Khmer Rhouge murdered his parents in the 1970s and he had no family in Cambodia. Surveying the scene and stillness of Birkenau he said “all genocide is personal to me.”

If I live to be 100 years old I will never forget those words and the conviction they were spoken with. Sadly I never got his name and upon returning to England I never saw him again. Yet those few minutes produced the most poignant conversation I ever had. All genocide is personal to me.

To our collective international shame the world does not take genocide personally. The conflict in Darfur is over three years old and the community of nations is disinterested, pre-occupied or incompetent. The previous three years illustrates humanity's callous ineptitude.

Early in 2003 a rebel group attacked government sites, saying the region was being neglected by Khartoum. These insurgents claimed their aggression was justified because the government oppressed black Africans in favor of Arabs. The region is arid and impoverished and people were competing for limited resources.

Darfur means land of the Fur and had previously experienced tension over land and grazing rights between the mostly nomadic Arabs, and farmers from the Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa communities. The two primary rebel groups are the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem). Recent peace talks were setback because of infighting in both groups.

The Sudanese government acknowledges mobilizing militias after rebel attacks but denies any relationship with the Janjaweed, accused of “cleansing” black Africans covering large tracts of territory.

Darfur refugees claim the Janjaweed attack villages on horses and camels, exterminating men, raping women and stealing anything they can. Many women report being abducted by the Janjaweed and held as sex slaves. Another vile atrocity are babies conceived from rape. Rape victims are typically told by perpetrators they want to make a "lighter baby."

Human rights groups, the American Congress and former Secretary of State Colin Powell all acknowledged that genocide was taking place. To its everlasting shame, the United Nations reported in February 2005 there was no intent to commit genocide. Just imagine an international body reporting in 1942 that Nazi Germany had no intent to commit genocide against the Jews of Europe.

Sudan's government denies any accountability for the Janjaweed and President Omar al-Bashir has called them "thieves and gangsters." International pressure and the threat of sanctions did finally compel the Sudanese government to promise disarming the Janjaweed. But they have not been disarmed.

Millions have fled the villages destroyed by the Janjaweed, towards camps near Darfur's main towns. There is not enough food, water or medicine to accommodate them.

International relief agencies have been heroic in Darfur but they are unable to penetrate vast areas because of the fighting. SLA leader Minni Minawi, signed a peace deal in May 2005. According to Amnesty International his fighters have abused people in areas opposed to the peace deal. A smaller SLA faction and JEM did not sign onto the agreement.

Approximately 7,000 African Union troops are deployed in Darfur with a limited mandate. There are too few soldiers to police the area and the operation can’t be funded much longer. And Sudan continues to resist western diplomatic pressure for the UN to take control of the peacekeeping mission. Recently the UN deliberated over a plan for17,000 troops and 3,000 UN policemen but there is deadlock and nothing has happened. And the killing continues.

What can we do? What can we do individually and as a country? The situation seems beyond hope and we’re besieged by so many other challenges domestically. We’re also governed by warmongers who prefer taking lives for oil instead of saving lives as members of the human race. Individually, few and this certainly includes myself, are willing to risk our lives. I can’t pretend I’m ready to join a relief agency and globe trot to Darfur.

But that rationalization is too convenient, too easy and too dismissive. Ultimately, our collective failure as human beings stems from not taking genocide personally as my companion from Cambodia told me sixteen years ago in Birkenau.

Every one of us can do something. For the netroots that means promoting awareness and raising money on behalf of organizations trying to save lives. Perhaps our promotion will also facilitate recruitment on behalf of organizations that are short staffed. Hopefully the netroots community can help pressure politicians into taking genocide personally as well.

I’ve been blogging since November ’05 and have no excuse for not writing sooner about genocide in Darfur. If all of us in the netroots community make it our business to periodically remind our readers about the crisis, promote agencies that need money or volunteers and encourage activism to influence politicians we can have an impact bigger than ourselves.

One organization is Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). MSF has over 162 international volunteers and 2,000 Sudanese staff saving lives in 24 locations in Darfur. In Chad, MSF assists refugees from Darfur in 11 locations with a total of 33 international staff. Click here to learn more about their work and make a donation.

Another heroic entity is SOS Children’s Villages. SOS currently operates two SOS Family Centers providing hundreds of severely affected children and single mothers with therapy and counseling, which is carried out by the organization's specialized staff. Click here to learn about their needs and make a contribution.

Bloggers can make a difference by ocasionally promoting just two different organizations that provide relief and save lives. Hence, can help save lives ourselves. If anyone wishes to promote other organizations and provide links where readers can make contributions please do so in your comments.

It’s time for all of us to take genocide personally.
Click here to review the growing number of comments in my cross posting at European Tribune. As always the ET community is thoughtful and provocative.


Manifest Dignity said...

I think it's really hard for people to grasp the reality of a situation through a TV screen. Thanks for saying what has to be said.

Anonymous said...

I was a visitor to Dachau in September 1989. Only then did I finally have some personal understanding of the the enormity of the Nazi regime's evil. Sadly, the world seems not to learn and, yes, history can repeat itself.

Anonymous said...

Will the American public join their US Congress in trying to end the genocide in West Papua ?

Easy to point a finger and say there are wicked people in Africa, but will Americans stop funding the TNI and end their exploitation of West Papua by Bechtel Inc. and Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc.?

Anonymous said...

I see that today the news is that the Sudanese are giving the African Union a week to 'clarify' their position or get out of their peacekeeping mission. It seems to be coming to a head. Keep up the pressure, Rob.

As you say, we all need to.

Anonymous said...


I would like to write a major post about Darfur and encourage some other bloggers as well. Perhaps we could create an online demonstration like we did in May

Raising more awareness for the suffering in Darfur is good and necessary. However, I believe there is already a lot of awareness, but awareness is not enough.
I think most or all of our readers know what is going on in Darfur. They want to see an end to the Darfur crisis, but they don't know what EXACTLY should be done.

Therefore, I would like to ask you: What kind of action shall we advocat?
What exactly should the international community do?

Donate more to aid agencies isn't enough, because the agencies can't do their work freely in the current (in)security situation.

Only more divestment and diplomatic pressure?

Create safe heavens?

Try to disarm the Janjaweed? How many troops do you need for that?

Bomb Khartoum? Then what?

Regime change? Are we prepared to deal with civil war and attempts of "ethnic cleansing in reverse" after a regime change? How long would that occupation last?

What realistic and fast course of action shall we advocate?

What are the Darfur and military experts suggesting?

The African Union has a Chapter VII resolution for Darfur and can use force to protect civilians. Shall we ask the international community to send more money and ressources to the African Union? Is the African Union willing and capable to fight and disarm the Janjaweed and their supporters?
The consensus seems to be that the AU hasn't done enough and that UN troops are needed, but I don't quite understand, why the UN would do a better job. The countries with most military and peace enforcement experience are not volunteering to sending troops to the UN, are they?
What exactly should the UN troops do?

I will write about Darfur soon and create awareness for the Darfur Day on September 17th, but I would also like to mention some specific suggestions by the experts.

Any help you can provide (like some links to expert recommendations) would be very much appreciated! Thank you.

jay lassiter said...

it seems when governments become radicalized, all groups on the margins are at a huge risk.

which is why i feel tremendous sorrow and shame when i contemplate the issues surroundling genocide.

Rob it *is* personal.

I could go on and on about this one, but it's really painful to think about. (which is probably why i didn't comment sooner.)

p.s. since you moderate your comments, you don't need the word verification thing.

Anonymous said...

I have a website against genocide, which I created after reading about Darfur in the foreign press, weeks before it finally became a news topic on National Public Radio. If anyone would like to check it out, I have poems from poets all over the world.

Anonymous said...

I, too, take genocide personally, but only because I know about pain and loss in profound ways. I've had an ex-con with 666 tatooed on his chin spend a year in our home. Another young man was kicked out of his house for being gay. A 15-year old was abandoned in a house that was falling down around her while her mother moved in with her boyfriend. Still another faced sleeping on park benches. They all call me Mom. Did they deserve my compassion? You bet. Every human deserves compassion, even the worst among us. When I see images from Darfur, or Dresden, or Dachau, or New Orleans, something deep inside me cries with them, feels their anguish and despair.

Now, in Iraq, as of a year ago, the estimate was that we'd killed 100,000 Iraqis. What if that military might had kept Afghanistan under control and had the wherewithal to save Darfur.

Better yet, what if we'd turned the other cheek after 9/11. The Amish have much to teach us about being citizens of the world. The fact is, our separateness is an illusion. Human suffering hurts us all whether we realize it or now.

Now, we've got legalized torture, and immunity from prosecution for the same war crimes Saddam is being tried for.

Ultimately, we'll evolve past this, I surely hope, and if I were a praying person, I'd do that, too. In the meantime, we must raise our voices.

All genocide is personal, whether we have the compassion to see it or the blindness to ignore it. It hurts us all.

Anonymous said...

It seems America does want to ignore genocide, and talk about Darfur only because it is 'popular'.

It is a shame that Bill, JD, and others do not object to their government funding and profiteering from genocide. The US colonial mining of West Papua's gold is a shameful thing.

Anonymous said...

Any civil war will continue so long as any fraction thinks it can seize power with violence.

But a genocide is easy to stop, just send the media and expose it, an offending State is unlikely to continue its criminal actions while the world documents the crime.

Unfortunately genocide often has international supporters wanting the profits of genocide, or agree the victims are "primitives" or "sub-human" who should be eliminated for the benefit of others.

All Americans should be keenly aware of their largest mine, a combine gold & copper mine in West Papua designed & built by Bechtel and operated by Freeport McMoRan. The gold & copper was discovered in 1936 by Mobil & Chevron, their geologist called it "Ertsberg" (Mountain of Ore), but it was not until 1959 when the Dutch colony discovered there was gold flowing into the Arafura Sea and began searching for the mountain source, that Rockefeller's Freeport Sulphur suddenly decided it was time to mine West Papua.

Inside the White House, McGeorge Bundy & Robert Komer told Kennedy that the US could only save itself from communism by forcing the Netherlands to sign the New York Agreement selling West Papua to Indonesian control in 1962. After General Suharto came to power by killing a half million Javanese potential opponents in 1966, Freeport Sulphur in 1967 got its first 30 year license from Indonesia to mine the Pacific nation of West Papua.

In 2004 the Yale University Law School published its report:
"Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua:
Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control

In 2005 the US Congressmen wrote Section 1115 asking questions about West Papua & Indonesia's claim of sovereignty. In late 2005 Bechtel & Freeport & Exxon used their lobby the "US Indonesia Society" to petition the US Senate to remove the entire Section 1115.

Genocide is about denial, the US Congress was not even allowed to ask questions about West Papua. 40 years of genocide (according to Yale Law School) and colonial mining courtesy of the Indonesian military. GW Bush has allowed Indonesia to keep Jihadist training camps OPEN, he also lifted Clinton's bans on the TNI, and even commenced U.S. funding & Aid to the Indonesian military which still works with Laskar Jihad and other al Qaeda networks. Why ? Gold & money ?